December 7, 2016
They say that nothing lasts forever. But some things do last longer than others. And once in a while, something manages to last a very long time.
I’m thinking of Little Pete’s diner on the corner of 17th and Chancellor Streets in downtown Philadelphia. I first discovered the place in the fall of 1954 when, as a new student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I was looking for a cheap, quick lunch between classes. Dewey’s, as it was then known, fit the bill perfectly: it was just a block away from school and offered a variety of items including hamburgers, hot dogs, and malteds—nothing fancy, mind you, but always dependable.
I did not frequent Dewey’s regularly. We mostly poor students tended to cook for ourselves, and downtown Philadelphia offered so many eating choices, but the place was always available in a pinch. Sometimes I ate there alone, sitting at the counter or, when with friends, at one of the booths. Over a tasty cheeseburger and French fries, we would talk about our musical studies, and then, perhaps accompanied by pie with a scoop of ice cream, the most recent gossip. Unlike many far more glamorous restaurants, which heaped unpleasantly loud background music on you, the diner, thank goodness, offered little or no music to hinder conversation.
I graduated from Curtis in 1959 and left Philadelphia to pursue life as a professional musician. Over the next few years, I completely forgot about this modest diner that had served me so well during my student days. But in 1968, Rudolf Serkin, the then director of the Curtis Institute of Music, invited our young Guarneri String Quartet to become teachers at the school. Looking out from my room at the nearby Warwick hotel after a day of teaching, what did I spy to my surprise and delight but that same friendly little diner across 17th street, still known as Dewey’s.
In 1978, Dewey’s was taken over by Greek immigrants Peter and John Koutroubos, and renamed Little Pete’s. Peter had begun his working career as a teenager washing dishes in downtown Philadelphia. The diner now offered an impressive variety of food—everything from coffee and desert to full-course meals. I quickly took an interest in their homemade soups—usually two different kinds offered daily. There was chicken noodle, vegetable, and occasionally split pea or lentil; just the right thing to provide a little nourishment and comfort before we rushed off to a rehearsal or teaching.
These days, I usually order scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, toast, and coffee for breakfast at the diner. Top notch, I’d have to say, and always served promptly and courteously. Once, the waitress approached me with the coffee urn and asked whether I’d like my coffee on the right or left side. In all the years I’ve eaten out as a traveling musician, this was an elegant first, only to be matched by the waiter in a Boise, Idaho restaurant who once asked if I wanted a frosted fork for my salad.
For lunch, I often go for a BLT, a bacon (well done), lettuce, and tomato sandwich on rye toast. At Little Pete’s it comes with pickle and chips. Taking the first bite out of this marvel of distinct and varied textures invariably reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon featuring two polar bears in front of an igloo. The bear who has just taken a large bite out of the igloo says to the other: “Oh, hey! I just love these things! Crunchy on the outside and a chewy center.”
Little Pete’s is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its clientele include cops, students, movie stars, janitors, athletes, night watchmen, business tycoons, taxi drivers, and occasionally even musicians.
Anthony Checchia, the founder of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, has a lovely tradition of treating performers to an after-concert dinner at one of the city’s fine restaurants. This was the case with the world-renowned concert pianist, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who performed often on the series. After one of those concerts, Horszowski, then in his nineties, refused Checchia’s usual dinner invitation. “Toni,” he said, “this time I’m treating you to my favorite Philadelphia eating place”.
Horszowski took Checchia to Little Pete’s.
The other day, I finished my teaching at Curtis and ate dinner at a restaurant across the street from the school. I figured the ample meal I had ordered would hold me over till bedtime, but come 11 p.m., I was unexpectedly hungry. Sleep would have been difficult under those conditions but thankfully, there was a solution to the problem: a late night binge at Little Pete’s.
I slipped onto a counter stool and looked the menu over. A burger and fries? No. Too late for something that heavy. A nice hot soup? Mmm, not quite substantial enough. Then how about my absolute favorite at Little Pete’s: a tasty BLT. If I were a poet (and I’m not), I would compose an ode to the glorious creation that soon arrived. So crunchy on the outside, so chewy in the center! As I polished off the BLT and approached Nirvana, I needed just one more thing to complete my spiritual journey—Little Pete’s rice pudding crowned with a dab of whipped cream. Once finished, I leaned back on the stool with the deeply satisfying feeling that all was right with the world.
But, sadly, all was not right with the world—at least not at Little Pete’s.
As I paid my bill some months ago, John Koutroubas, the usually cheerful co-owner, informed me soberly that the zoning laws had been changed and that within months, the building housing Little Pete’s would be torn down to make way for a smart new hotel.
I was crestfallen. Where would the students, cops, janitors, night watchmen, and ninety-year-old concert pianists eat once Little Pete’s was gone? And where would I get my beloved BLT? Probably not at the upscale hotel that was going to replace the diner. And if it did serve BLTs, the waitress would never ask if I wanted my coffee on the right or left side, the music would be much too loud, and the check three times the amount charged by Little Pete’s.
As far as I can tell, the original diner made its debut on 17th and Chancellor Streets in 1940. When the doors finally close in 2017, good solid food will have been served there almost continuously for 77 years.
As they say, nothing lasts forever, but you’ve gotten pretty close to forever, Little Pete’s—a diner that will be sorely missed and fondly remembered.
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